In my hometown, it was a right of passage to take piano lessons from a woman with long acrylic nails named Margarita. You’d take a year of lessons, screw up your final performance and then quit before you could successfully tie your own shoes.
Joan Osborne, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, didn’t even make it to a year.
“My piano teacher had this enormous dog that would run out into the yard and just bark at me,” she paused, and though we were talking over the phone, I could hear a smile on her face. “It scared the living daylights out of me, and I, I just couldn’t take it, so I quit piano because of that.”
That didn’t stop music from being a part of her life. She sang in junior high, and because of her school’s phenomenal music program and a wonderful music teacher who challenged them to do difficult pieces, she felt as though she had a pretty good foundation for a singer. But, it’s not like doing any of this professionally was at the forefront of her mind.
“You know,” she tells me, “I grew up in a little town in Kentucky, so I didn’t think about becoming a musician or a singer as a realistic life choice,” she said, laughing. “It’d be like a real fantasy.”
What she did instead was pack her bags and move to New York. Her goals were more of the Hollywood variety, attending New York University for a degree in film. This is where her true education of the arts began, but the music still didn’t come purposefully. It was all a big accident.
Osborne told me that she just stumbled upon this fantastic music scene in the late 1980’s. She just so happened to go out for a drink with this guy in a blues bar. There was a microphone, so she went up and sang, with the piano at her back and the audience in front. When she was done, the piano player stopped her and asked her to keep coming back to open mic night. Then, it just sort of spiraled from there.
She started going back there to regularly perform at the open mic nights, and then she started hearing about other open mic nights, which she began attending as well. She met this whole world of fantastic musicians and discovered that there was this amazing scene. Osborne started getting completely sucked into it. She tells me that it got, “to the point where all the money I was supposed to be spending on textbooks and tuition for next semester, I was spending on Etta James records and Howlin’ Wolf records.” She’d go out to see live bands, and spend all of her time in this life.
She realized then that she’d regret it eventually if she ignored this joy she had with music, and thus she decided to do it for the rest of her life.
30 years later, she’s been nominated for seven Grammys, has toured all over the world and raised a 15-year-old daughter. She’s really done it all, and even in the midst of a pandemic, she just released her tenth studio album.
“Trouble and Strife” was released on Sept. 18th. It’s her most politically charged album yet.
“It’s a response to what’s happening in the world right now, and a lot of the corruption that’s going on in the world right now and the abuse of power,” she told me.
Though this might be her most political yet, Osborne has never strayed far from fighting for her rights, and the rights of others. She’s done quite a bit of work with Planned Parenthood, including acting as a clinic escort, even before her first album came out. “Once I started to have some success in music, I really,” she paused, “I liked being able to take that focus that people were putting on me and put it on Planned Parenthood, and put it on these political organizations that I support. I felt like that was a great way to use this platform.”
She paused to tell me that this has caused some back and forth with music venues in the past. Once, when playing in a Lilith Fair show in Texas, she was banned from the venue for standing up for the Planned Parenthood table that had been banned from the row of other political and community tables.
“I thought it was ridiculous,” she said, “It made me really mad, this is a festival about women artists and this is about empowering women…” she paused and cut herself off. “It’s also the hottest ticket of the summer, so if you want to make the money off of this hot ticket concert and festival then you have to embrace all of it. You can’t just pick and choose what you want to have and what you don’t want to have.”
Through some mumbling backstage, the venue eventually agreed to have the table join the others, but banned performers from talking about Planned Parenthood on stage. She again thought it was ridiculous that she was being censored in this way, “I don’t care what you want me to say or not.”
So, she and the band went over to the booth, got big Planned Parenthood t-shirts, wore them for their set, and Osborne ended the performance with a big special shout-out to Planned Parenthood. The venue was so furious that they banned Osborne from ever playing there again.
She laughed and told me that despite all this weight, her new record has a style which is very “70’s AM radio.” It’s light, uplifting and allows music to take us to a happier, calmer space. It is a break from all that’s going on, an opportunity to sit back with headphones, on or play it out loud, and take a deep breath.
This album has received rave reviews and has seemingly had an international impact. She’s been interviewed by Australian television shows, people in the Netherlands and now, by me, in Fairfield, CT.
What’s so special about Connecticut? Osborne will be performing her last in-person show of 2020 at the Ridgefield Playhouse in Ridgefield, CT. On Oct. 17, there will be a socially-distanced, outdoor concert for all to come and hear Osborne in some lovely mid-fall weather.
She welcomes you to come and enjoy it, if you can.
But, as I am still in the midst of midterms, quizzes, essays and writing for this paper, I’ll just have to sit back and listen. I will take a deep breath, sip some tea and know that Joan Osborne is speaking for me as much as she is speaking to me.
You can listen to her new album here: https://www.joanosborne.com/
Tickets are available for her upcoming Ridgefield Show here: https://ridgefieldplayhouse.org/event/joan-osborne/